09 August 2009

Helping a Team Carry Out Meaningful Analytics

In a recent post I outlined eight signs that are leading indicators for a project that can be expected not to reach its goals and targets in a timely manner. This post will highlight how best to deal with the fourth of these signs, a project a team that does not appear to be doing any meaningful analytics.

Why is this a problem? There are two main reasons why this should worry you. The first is that it is extremely difficult to conceive of a complex and important project that does not require any analytical activities to arrive at the required conclusions (if the answer was easy, it would not require a project). Therefore, if the team is not carrying out these types of activities, you and the other stakeholders are very unlikely to get the conclusions and recommendations you require. In the best case, you are likely to get a "data-dump" and a set of options to choose between.

The other reason why this is a worrying symptom is what you tend to see such teams doing instead of analytics. What I have often seen is that such teams seem to be working hard, but are spending their time carrying out a large number of interviews, collecting as much data and information as they can lay their hands on, and, often, doing a lot of travel. The consequences of these activities are that project costs are too high, and that it is very unlikely that the key project milestones will be met.

Why do project teams typically not carry out the required analytical tasks? In many of the situations where I am asked to help this is caused by the team having an unclear picture of what is required from them, and therefore thinking that preparing a "data-dump" is the goal of the project. In other companies I see project-teams that are unable to carry out the required analytical tasks. While analytics is second nature to many people (consultants, etc), there are many capable and smart people who are not good at structuring and analyzing (new) problems. Finally, I also often see teams that are unwilling to go beyond data-collection as they are uncomfortable with the possible conclusions and are not willing to deliver unpopular recommendations.

What can you do to help the project team carry out the required analytics? My first step in helping teams with this problem is to recheck the project plan to understand how much analytics are required. The next step I carry out is to sit down with the project team to understand why they are still in the data-collection phase. The next steps will depend on the answers given by the team. In situations where they do not understand that they are required to do the analytics, I ensure that the team understands the true goals of the project and how the required deliverables depend on analytics. This set of actions will also help to push the team that is unwilling to go beyond data-collection to come up with uncomfortable and/or unpopular conclusions. In this situation I find that it helps to explain to the team why they (as individuals) have been asked to carry out this project.

In the cases where the missing analytics is due to inability, then the team composition is wrong, and together with the sponsor I consider what we can do about this. One solution is to add analytical capacity to the team, but the responsibilities of such a person has to be carefully defined in order to avoid team-development issues. The second solution will be to push the team to do their best, possibly combined with a workshop on specific analytical techniques (spreadsheets, statistics, etc). This is the best solution if keeping to deadlines is more important than optimal quality.

Using the process described above, I was able to help/force the team at the utility company to develop overall conclusions and meet the final agreed deadlines. Follow the links if you are interested in more information on project planning or project management training.

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